The Trench

Biological Chemical Press

Below the headlines: CBW matters (13)

Share this article

(A weekly digest from the internet on chemical and biological warfare issues. Emphasis is on incidents and perspectives, but inclusion of an item does not equal endorsement or agreement with the contents. This issue covers items collected between 8 – 14 May 2017.)

Chemical warfare in Syria

  • Who to believe about Syria? (Tim Hayward, 18 April 2017): I’m no expert about Syria, so why these blogposts? The initial stimulus was realising that people of good will and similar ethics can have some markedly contrasting views of the situation in Syria.  This was a puzzle to me. And given the gravity of what’s at stake, I felt an obligation to try and solve it. The basic disagreement could not be explained by familiar sorts of political bias. It cuts across left-right and authoritarian-libertarian lines; a person’s stance on it can not even be predicted by their stance, say, on Palestine, or Cuba.  Attitudes to Russia can be a better indicator, but if my own case is anything to go by, this has nothing particularly to do with political views and is anyway an effect rather than a cause. What Putin says about Syria tends to resonate with what I’ve come to think; I have never thought that any statement was true because Putin made it. I also just don’t think it very intellectually mature or responsible to suppose that something is false because he says it!
  • Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing (Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, 5 May 2017): Chomsky cites Postol because he is a man with credentials, giving conspiracy theories a veneer of scientific plausibility.
  • Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: The Left’s moral cul-de-sac (Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, 5 May 2017): The paradox of Chomskyian contrarianism is that because it is a bundle of reflexes whose primary stimulus is domestic politics, it sees retreat from principle as less problematic than a lapse in adversarial posturing. Chomsky is not the worst offender on the Left; indeed, until August 2013, he even sounded sympathetic to the Syrian uprising. It was the massacre of over 1,400 people in a horrific sarin attack in August 2013 that ironically marked the deterioration in Chomsky’s position.
  • Regional action needed to prevent Syrian chemical attacks (Daniel M. Gerstein, 7 May 2017): Last month the world watched in horror as innocent Syrian civilians were brutally attacked by chemical weapons. France recently joined the United States, Britain, Turkey and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in assigning blame for the April 5 attack to the Syrian government and President Bashar Assad. In a sense, the French announcement comes as no surprise given the incontrovertible evidence uncovered by the other investigations. The chemical used was sarin — a powerful nerve agent. The chemical formulas match those of known Syrian stocks and the aircraft that conducted the attack came from a Syrian Air Force base. Hard to argue with such facts. What has been a surprise is the tepid global response.
  • False-flag chemical weapons attack: Re-play of an old US ploy to smash Syria? (Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, 8 May 2017): As the fallout of the April 4th chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun in Syria continues to unfold, contradictory reports on the incident have produced more questions than answers as to what really happened.  The only certainty seems to be that sarin or a similar poison was used. This was confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons according to Reuters, but OPCW was not mandated to assign blame.
  • The chemical attack in Syria: Sorting truth from propaganda (Rod Barton, 9 May 2017): International media have widely reported on a sarin nerve gas attack that was said to have occurred at the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Syria on 4 April 2017, killing dozens of people and injuring many more. Syria and its allies have denied responsibility, claiming that rebels had stored chemical weapons in a warehouse that was bombed by the Syrian air force, and that leaking gas from this event caused the casualties. Since the attack, various individuals have argued that rebels staged it as a ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the Assad regime and draw the US further into the Syrian conflict. Principal among the false flag theorists is Theodore Postol, a former Professor of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (but also Tim Anderson, a Sydney University academic).

OPCW investigation in Syria

  • Russia satisfied with OPCW conclusions sulphur mustard gas used in Syria by terrorists (Tass, 6 May 2017): Russia is satisfied with conclusions included in the OPCW mission’s report that sulphur mustard gas was used in the Syrian village of Maarat Umm-Hawsh in the Aleppo region, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday. “The conclusions we had made along with our Syrian counterparts that terrorists used sulphur mustard in the populated locality of Maarat Umm-Hawsh have been fully confirmed at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). We state this with satisfaction,” the ministry said.
  • Comment by the Information and Press Department on the latest reports by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission and Human Rights Watch on the use of chemical weapons in Syria (MID, 6 May 2017): The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (OPCW FFM) in Syria has recently published a report on the September 16, 2016 chemical attack in the village of Maarat Umm Hawsh in Aleppo Province, Syria. We provided assistance to the OPCW FFM in keeping with Clause 6 of Article X of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In particular, the Russian Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Forces provided the samples and factual and material evidence collected at the incident site to the authorised representatives of the Syrian Government. In December 2016, these samples and materials were forwarded to the OPCW FFM, and in January 2017 these were delivered, with Italy’s assistance, to The Hague for OPCW analysis.
  • Russian Ambassador to the UK: We need a full investigation of chemical weapons allegations in Syria (Alexander Yakovenko, 11 May 2017): Unfortunately, there is still no proper reaction by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to the alleged use of sarin in Khan Sheikhoun of 4 April. The work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to Syria is shrouded in secrecy. What is clear is that it continues to operate in a remote mode, using internet data mostly concocted by the radical elements of the Syrian opposition, including the notorious “White Helmets”. From the scarce information one can gather that the samples taken from those injured or dead were tested in the OPCW-licensed laboratories in Britain and Turkey and established to be sarin or sarin-like substance. However, the samples were not taken at the site of the incident, but, it appears, in the Turkish territory, to which the injured and the bodies of the dead were taken. Hence the basic principle of the investigation, that of the chain of custody, hasn’t been observed. There are no answers on that from our Western partners. As there is no clear evidence that those people were from Khan Sheikhoun and not from somewhere else.
  • Appointment of Stefan Mogl as Director UN Investigations Office (Spiez Laboratory, May 2017): The United Nations, in co-operation with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has set up a joint investigation committee in 2015 to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons operations in Syria. Stefan Mogl, Head of Chemistry division of Spiez Laboratory, was appointed by the UN as Director Investigations Office until November 2017 for the second phase of the investigations.

Status of CW disarmament in Syria

  • Ask an Expert: Mallory Stewart on Syria’s Chemical Weapons (Hazel Correa, 12 May 2017): Mallory Stewart was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Emerging Security Challenges and Defense Policy in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC) from 2015 until January 20, 2017. She was responsible for the management of the Office of Emerging Security Challenges and the Office of Chemical and Biological Weapons Affairs. Stewart was the State Department lead lawyer on the 2013 U.S.-Russian Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons. In this interview, Stewart provides an overview of Syria’s chemical weapons program, the steps the U.S. government and our allies have taken to deter future chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime, and recommendations to hold the Syrian government accountable for its violation of international law.

Other CBW-related incidents

  • The curious case of Kim Jong-nam and Malaysia’s CWC legislation (Scott Spence, Spring 2017): On 13 February, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was apparently assassinated by two women in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport while returning to Macau where he lived in exile. The article briefly reviews how the Malaysian authorities can enforce their Chemical Weapons Convention Act 2005 (Act 641) to investigate, prosecute and punish what appears to have been a chemical weapon attack on their territory.
  • Right-Wing’s ‘Poop Bombs’ Are ‘Biological Weapons,’ a Health Hazard: Venezuelan Official (TeleSurTV, 11 May 2017): The Venezuelan government has slammed the “poopootov cocktails” as a biochemical weapon and raised concerns over public health. In response to the Venezuelan right-wing opposition’s crude use of a “shittier” weapon this week dubbed “poopootov cocktails” — plastic bottles filled with human feces and water named for their likeness to Molotov cocktails — Venezuelan officials have spoken out, saying the demonstrators are breaking international treaties on biological and chemical weapons.

CBW disarmament

  • Resourcing the Biological Weapons Convention (Scott Spence, Spring 2017): The Financial Resources Management Service (FRMS) of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) released a document on 30 April 2017, available on the UNOG website, giving the status of State Party contributions to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and Anti Personnel Landmine Convention (OTW). The FRMS does not mince words when it confirms that “if all contributions are not received by the time the UN has to make payments for conference costs, the UN will be unable to host those conferences”. This includes the sole meeting scheduled in 2017 for the BWC, the Meeting of States Parties (MSP) during 4-8 December.
  • Industry enhances cooperation with OPCW (ICCA, 9 May 2017): ICCA has long been considered a critical supporter of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its effort to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Since 2015 the relationship has gained a new quality. In a brief interview, Rene Van Sloten, Cefic Executive Director for Industrial Policy, explains the rationale behind it.
  • Zambia wary of mass destruction weapons (Arthur Mwansa, 9 May 2017): MINISTER of Defence Davis Chama says Zambia will always co-operate with other countries in ensuring that weapons of mass destruction do not find themselves in the hands of terrorists. And Mr Chama said Zambia has demonstrated full commitment to supporting the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) by clearing its arrears to the establishment in full. Mr Chama said he is aware that most countries in the Southern Africa region, Zambia inclusive, have faced challenges in implementing and adhering to provisions of the Chemical Weapon Convention.
  • Strong Commitment Indonesia Shows to Chemical Weapon Convention (NetralNews, 10 May 2017): Indonesia wants to promote cooperation with the Organization of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) especially in capacity building for National Authority toward implementation of the Chemical Weapon Convention, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said. On Monday, Retno met OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü in the Hague, and expressed appreciation for the cooperation so far between Indonesia and OPCW.
  • The European Union and weapons of mass destruction: A follow-on to the global strategy? (MD Staff, 11 May 2017): As of mid 2016, the European Union (EU) finally has a new Global Strategy for its foreign and security policy, which is a follow-on to its 2003 Security Strategy. In 2003, in the midst of a heated debate about suspected Iraqi weapon of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, the issue of non-proliferation easily made it to the top of the list of priorities. However, the EU should undertake a new and dedicated effort to deal with the problems related to weapons of mass destruction. More specifically, one or more new strategy documents are required and, in this context, the EU should also pursue WMD-related contingency planning to increase preparedness and prevent or counter crises. [Paper]
  • BD formally assumes chair of Executive Council of OPCW (Bangladesh Today, 12 May 2017): Bangladesh has formally assumed the chair of the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for the next one year with effect from May 12, reports UNB. Bangladesh Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the OPCW Sheikh Mohammed Belal assumed this role at a simple ceremony on Friday morning in presence of the Director-General and other senior officials of the OPCW and the Ambassadors of Chile, Slovakia, Spain and Sudan.

CBW threats

  • Chemical Weapons Are Here to Stay. Got a Gas Mask? (Asher Orkaby, 11 May 2017): If chemical weapons are indeed immoral and a violation of the norms of warfare, why does the world hesitate to respond? On the other hand, if there is a codified ban against chemical weapons, why do perpetrators continue to use them with impunity? The answer to both questions is that the tenuous legal and moral taboo against chemical weapons is a figment of public imagination, and any attempts to formalize their illegality serve only to forestall the eventual normalization of chemical-weapons use in warfare.
  • Russian special services warn of possible chemical attack in Moscow (Pravda, 12 May 2017): The Russian Security Council has issued a warning about a high degree of the threat of the use of chemical weapons and poisonous substances on the territory of Russia. Assistant Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Alexei Pavlov, said that Russian security agencies take all necessary measures to prevent an attack with the use of weapons of mass destruction that terrorists may use against Russian citizens.


  • Smallpox-laced blankets no reason to change Amherst name: Parks Canada (Jim Day, 11 May 2017): Parks Canada remains adamant about keeping a controversial British general’s name on a national park in P.E.I. John Joe Sark, a member of the Mi’kmaq Nation traditional government, is strongly urging the name of General Jeffery Amherst be scrubbed from Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst historic site.
  • Mi’kmaq leader returns Order of P.E.I. over refusal to rename Fort Amherst historic site (Jake Edmiston, 12 May 2017): John Joe Sark received the Order of Prince Edward Island at a ceremony last autumn at Government House — the Lieutenant Governor’s white, neoclassical mansion on the Charlottetown waterfront, just across the harbour from Fort Amherst. Being so close to Fort Amherst irked him. Sark, a Keptin of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, was receiving the province’s highest honour, and yet a campaign he had led for almost a decade sat across the water unfinished. Since 2008, he has been pushing to scrub the name of Jeffery Amherst from the site near Rocky Point. The national historic site has good views of the Charlottetown harbour and visible ruins of an 18th-century British military fort. For Sark, it is a monument to a tyrant.

CBW defence, protection and preparedness

  • How the House health care bill undercuts bioterror and pandemic defenses (John Mecklin, 5 May 2017): The celebration, denunciation, and media dissection of the House of Representatives’ health care bill has focused largely on how the bill that passed this week would affect citizens and their pocketbooks, if it ever became law. But no matter how important preexisting-condition coverage and Medicaid funding might be—i.e., very important—the cuts the bill would make in federal support for public health seem to be getting fairly short media shrift.
  • DTRA Seeks Innovations for Indexing Pathogen Repositories Worldwide (Global Biodefense, 8 May 2017): The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is seeking innovative technologies to accomplish automated text processing and visual analytics for biological materials situational awareness in support of the Biological Materials Information Program (BMIP). BMIP provides a dynamic compendium of information focusing on the identification and characterization of pathogen repositories worldwide. BMIP directly supports the warfighter by providing on-the-ground access to biological materials information for optimal situational awareness during targeting and exploitation operations.
  • US approves $75 mn chemical protective gear for Indian soldiers (PTI, 12 May 2017): The US has approved $75 million high-tech chemical protective clothing for the Indian armed forces that will protect soldiers against biological and chemical warfare.

Dual-use technologies

  • Crispr Makes It Clear: The US Needs a Biology Strategy, and Fast (Amy Webb, 11 May 2017): Biology has emerged as one of the most important technology platforms of the 21st century. With the arrival of the gene-editing technology Crispr, biology will soon converge with everyday medicine, big agriculture, and artificial intelligence to influence the future of all life on our planet. Crispr, which allows scientists to edit precise positions on DNA using a bacterial enzyme, is already transforming cancer treatment, preventing the spread of disease, and solving global famine. Its trajectory necessarily involves government agencies and commissions, our elected officials, and the courts—and none of them are prepared for what’s coming.
  • A New Head to the Genomic Beast That is CRISPR (Saskia V. Popescu , 11 May 2017): CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), also called CRISPR-Cas9, is a gene editing tool that allows researchers to target a specific site in the genetic code and edit the DNA. Sort of like a pair of scissors and a copy/paste tool, this technology allows scientists to permanently modify genes, which opens the door for treating genetic diseases while also raising ethical red flags.

Industry matters

  • Emergent BioSolutions opens expanded East Baltimore vaccine plant (Sarah Gantz, 8 May 2017): When the next flu pandemic strikes or, perish the thought, the Ebola virus starts spreading in the United States, a newly expanded pharmaceutical plant in East Baltimore stands ready to respond. Emergent BioSolutions, in partnership with the federal government, spent $80 million to double the size of its East Lombard Street plant near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
  • One shot: Chimerix still betting on drug to treat smallpox (Kelcey McClung, 10 May 2017): ​Durham-based biotech company Chimerix has placed most of its eggs in one basket, banking on the success of a drug called brincidofovir that treats smallpox infections. The drug failed to gain Food and Drug Administration approval in late 2015, causing its stock and company value to plummet to the ground almost overnight. But CEO Michelle Berrey remains confident that brincidofovir, CMX001, will gain FDA approval with a new trial this fall. With the approval, Chimerix will be able to market the drug, gain profit and work on developing other drugs.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to The Trench blog by filling in the form below.